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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 6 November, 2002, 15:58 GMT
Prime Minister's Questions
BBC News Online's Nick Assinder gives his instant view on the winners and losers during Tony Blair's weekly grilling in the House of Commons.

"The people of Gibraltar don't want his grubby deals" - Iain Duncan Smith tries to rally his troops by attacking Tony Blair's policy on Gibraltar.

After a difficult couple of days for the Tory leader, the tactic had his MPs roaring with approval.

"If I were him I wouldn't go against grubby deals too much. He may have need of a few of them" - Mr Blair replies with a dig at the Tory leader's woes
Iain Duncan Smith joined the prime minister in welcoming any UN resolution that will deliver peace in the Middle East and result in the full disarmament of the Iraqi regime.

On higher education, he pressed Mr Blair to rule out legislation in this parliament for top-up fees for students.

He then turned his attention to Thursday's referendum in Gibraltar, and asked the prime minister if he will abide by the decision of its people who are voting on whether the UK and Spain should share sovereignty of the territory.

Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy focused on care homes and asked why 300,000 care providers have had their criminal record bureau checks abandoned.

"When will these checks be resumed and most important, when will they be completed?"

Other topics covered include: Medals being denied for war elderly war veterans, public interest defence, elections to the suspended Northern Ireland assembly, the Paul Burrell trial, draft regulations on the sale of fireworks, detox treatment for heroin addicts, anti-social behaviour, science, employment rights for the clergy, urban sub-post offices, the control of airguns, the Lottery, Potters Bar rail crash, violent attacks on shopworkers, air services review, and the coal industry.

Two MPs tapped into public interest about the case of Princess Diana's butler, Paul Burrell.

While Westminster buzzes over the Tory Party's troubles, two Labour MPs, Ian Lucas and David Winnick preferred to concentrate on matters prompting wider concern.

Mr Winnick wants a Commons statement on the case, while Mr Lucas called for more clarification on the role of the attorney general.

They didn't get much from Mr Blair in response, but the issue received a justified airing.

Labour MPs had a golden opportunity to highlight Tory woes - but apart from mocking Mr Duncan Smith by waving him goodbye, they missed a gaping open goal.

Perhaps they'd been told to button it. After all, the Tory troubles do Labour no harm at all.

Well, whatever it was Iain Duncan Smith was supposed to do at question time to shore up his crumbling leadership, he didn't do it.

He turned in one of his now traditional, mundane performances which succeeded only in not making things worse.

He clearly knew, because everybody on his own side has been telling him so non-stop, that he had a crunch appearance ahead of him.

But he showed no sign of cracking under all that stress. Indeed he almost sauntered into question time to lob in a couple of his regular crowd pleasers.

He went on top up fees again - presumably because he did well with it last week.

And he followed through with Gibraltar, hardly an issue that's grabbing them in the Dog and Duck, but a guaranteed string puller for the Tory backbenchers.

Damp squib

A few Labour backbenchers jeered and waved goodbye. But they were always going to do that, their whips had probably wound them up just minutes before loosing them into the chamber like clockwork mice.

So it was all a bit of a damp squib.

And, to be fair, it is hard to think precisely what "helpful" backbenchers like Michael Portillo meant when they said something was resting on Mr Duncan Smith's performance.

Was he supposed to whip out a Magnum, "the most powerful handgun in the world", go snake-eyed, and tell Tony Blair (or even Mr Portillo, come to think of it) to make his day?

Or was he supposed to rise loftily above the baying and howling and, with a few finely crafted phrases, blow all his opponents out of the water with his brilliance.

Fantasy

There is no doubt that, with the Tory leader facing by far his greatest crisis yet, this question time performance was under the microscope like few before it. And he could not afford a disaster.

But any idea that his leadership would be made or destroyed by a single performance against Tony Blair was always fantasy.

If he had fallen flat on his face, which he does have the ability to do, his troubles would have doubled.

But by putting in a competent performance he has averted that worst outcome.

He is still far from out of the woods and he has certainly not won over any of his critics. But there will be bigger challenges - and real career threateners - further down the line.

If not before, then certainly at next May's local elections.


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